Stalin’s last American spy: new book tells the strange tale of Noel Field

Kati Martons ninth book, True Believer, is a fascinating and stirringly relevant portrait of a devout communist from Boston who worked for the Soviet regime

Its no exaggeration to say that the story of Noel Field is in my DNA.

Kati Marton takes a sip of coffee. Her parents were Hungarian journalists, jailed by the Soviet regime in Budapest in the 1950s. Her father was kept in a secret police prison cell that once held Field, in a jail that also held Fields wife, Herta. When all concerned were free, Endre and Illona Marton were the first and only journalists to interview Field. The Martons then fled to America.

And who was Noel Field? He was a Boston quaker, born in 1904, a brilliant mind who completed Harvard in two years and joined the state department. He was also a devout communist who died in exile in Hungary, far from Washington DC. As the title of Kati Martons remarkable new book has it, he was a True Believer: Stalins Last American Spy.

On a glorious October morning in New York, in a cafe on West 76th, Marton and I discuss that new book, her ninth. It mines a rich seam: spies and spying, central Europe between the wars and after, the devastating effects of totalitarianism, fanaticism and betrayal.

I have a fascination with espionage that goes back to my earliest childhood, she says. I think I first heard the word spy, the Hungarian word for it, when I was six years old when my parents were falsely accused of being spies for being good journalists really, the last independent journalists in Budapest in the 1950s. And the intersections between my saga and Noel Fields saga are bizarre.

In precis, Fields bizarre saga is this. Appalled by the horrors of the first world war, an internationalist and pacifist, he was pushed left by the Great Depression, the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti and President Hoovers brutal treatment of the Bonus Army. Seeking to correct the repressive course he thought his country was on, to prevent another war, Field began to pass documents to Russia.

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Kati Marton: the intersections between my saga and Noel Fields saga are bizarre. Photograph: Eric Stringer/Getty Images

In Spain during the civil war, he worked for the League of Nations. During the second world war, he ran aid for the Unitarian Service Committee and channelled it to communists first. He also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor of the CIA. In peacetime, he went to Prague. He hoped to find new purpose but he was seized, taken to Hungary, imprisoned and brutally tortured.

Field became a pawn in the last Stalinist purges, his name deployed in show trials to incriminate others though he was never tried himself. As Marton tells in shattering sequence, in the most extraordinary passages of an extraordinary book, family members went behind the Iron Curtain to find him. They paid a terrible cost. Fields faith never wavered, though, and in Budapest in 1970 he was buried with full Soviet honours.

The fixed point has always been Budapest

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An identification card issued in 1946, by the US war department for Noel Field. Photograph: US Government

In Martons last book but one, Enemies of the People, she told her parents story: how they were taken from her when she was five, how they came back, how they fled to freedom. She then wrote Paris: A Love Story, a meditation on her marriage to the diplomat Richard Holbrooke and her grief after his sudden death in 2010. Then she turned homewards once more.

My life has been a rather turbulent one, she says, after 40 years or more as an award-winning journalist and writer, but the fixed point has always been Budapest and what happened in those years, because they were shrouded in mystery. My parents did not fancy talking about either the communist period or even less the one that preceded it.

When I finished my last book I was looking for a way to get out of my own saga. And I picked up [the historian] Arthur Schlesingers memoir, A Life in the 20th Century, and up popped this name, Noel Field, as someone who had worked with Schlesinger and the OSS and whom Schlesinger had never trusted.

Marton began work, quickly finding that surviving family members were very receptive to my research because they themselves didnt know very much. The Field family made available correspondence which forms very much the spine of this book.

Marton discovered a truly extraordinary character, a man whose motives might genuinely be described as good who ended up working against his own country, in the service of a nightmare regime. Field suffered brutally for such loyalty. But he was directly implicated in the death of at least one person and his name was used to condemn many others. Throughout the book, the horrors of the Gulag loom large.

Its a human drama in a political context, Marton says, but to me whats interesting is what motivates such a person well-born, superbly educated with every privilege, poised on a dream career to espouse one of the most violent, destructive ideologies?

She cannot have imagined that her attempt to answer this question would be published at such a propitious time. For one thing, the book has come out in the midst of a presidential election in which one candidates apparent ties to Russia and a brutal Russian leader have been constantly, hotly and sensationally debated.

When the name Donald Trump comes up in conversation, Marton a friend of the Clintons grimaces and elides, though she alights on an issue nonetheless distinctly linked to the rise of the Republican presidential nominee.

Im very involved with refugee issues, she says. Im an overseer of the International Rescue Committee and Im a refugee myself, having benefited from American largesse. And [in the 1930s] as now the country was showing its worst side, its least generous side to refugees, in that case fleeing Nazism. And this played a big role in Fields radicalisation.

Of course the connection to todays world is very interesting to me, regarding the power of an idea to blind a man and how fanaticism works. And when I finished writing this, I thought: Holy cow, how am I ever going to get the publics attention when the public is obsessed with Trump and the war against terror?

So I thought, Well, Im going to write an essay and put it right at the front of the book, called The Capture of Minds, whereby I connect the capture of young, alienated, lost idealists today by a really destructive, toxic but addictive ideology, that is Islamic fundamentalism, with its 1930s equivalent, which was global communism and Stalinism, for another disenchanted generation which had basically given up on their own countries ability to set things to rights.

America then was a nation that was deeply divided, and its youth had given up on politics as usual. So they were very susceptible to a messiah promising to right every wrong.

Witches in the government

Inevitably, reviewers of Martons book have cited the novels of John Le Carr, presenting Field as a spy who did not come in from the cold. The sheer naivety of her subject, however, sometimes brings the book closer, in a bizarre way, to the comedies of PG Wodehouse. In one extraordinary scene, Field, intoxicated on his faith, bounds up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to sing the Internationale in Russian, horrified NKVD handlers milling embarrassedly about below. Imagine a great lost masterpiece Psmith: Stalinist Spy.

But if there is comedy in Martons larger story, it is pitch black. Somehow, while Field was spying for Stalin in 1930s Washington, he went undetected. Some suspected him in Europe but the story of how he went east was arrested, jailed, tortured and finally released into carefully controlled retirement is shot through with instances of remarkable human frailty.

Alger

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Two police photographs, circa 1949, of former US state department official and accused communist spy Alger Hiss. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Orwell also looms over Martons tale, in Spain and in the cells and torture chambers of eastern Europe. Some reviewers have questioned the impact of Fields activities, but Field was real: a genuine spy for the totalitarian Soviet regime. And he was not alone, in his spying and in the terrible, contradictory price that he paid.

By the time of the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Marton says, the reds under Americas bed existed mostly in the tortured mind of Senator Joe McCarthy. But in the 30s, in the highest reaches of the American government, Im talking in the White House, the state department, there were witches I loved finding these super-weird nutcases who absolutely believed in Stalin and were then destroyed by him.

J Edgar Hoover, who eventually came to run the reign of terror in Washington, when he knew everything about everybodys lives, was flat-footed when it came to members of the US government who were betraying their own country.

Among Americans who spied for Russia, such as contemporaries and friends Alger Hiss and Laurence Duggan, Noel Field may indeed be a minor figure. Certainly his name is not nearly so well known as those of Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, the Cambridge spies <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/23/mi5-mi6-coverup-cambridge-spy-ring-archive-papers” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>who chose to betray Great Britain.

Hes different from Philby and his ilk, Marton says. Noel Field was a desperately needy man. He was much less of a cynic than your lot, if I may call them that. He was needy of family, a larger family, and a sense of belonging, which the party offered even if he was not allowed to join that party until he was useless to Moscow as a spy.

Then he joined, and typically for this man who never failed to make the wrong choice, he joined the Communist party in the year that it imploded, 1956, with Khrushchev denouncing Stalin followed by the Hungarian revolution, the first armed popular uprising against Soviet rule. Thats when Field finally came in from the cold, as an open member of the Communist party.

Martons book may help bring Field to the light, alongside Hiss and Philby, Blunt and Maclean in the halls of Anglo-American infamy.

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  • True Believer: Stalins Last American Spy, by Kati Marton, is out now in the US. It is published <a href=”https://bookshop.theguardian.com/true-believer-453061.html” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>in the UK on 3 November.
  • Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/30/true-believer-kati-marton-noel-field-stalin-spy

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